OKLAHOMA'S workers' compensation system is broken. It has been for a long time. Lawmakers have passed many reforms through the years, but those changes amounted to nibbling at the margins. Wholesale change is needed.
This is the year to make that happen, and there's momentum for it as the first session of the 54th Legislature gets set to convene Monday.
Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, has vowed to make a major comp system overhaul his priority. “You go around and talk to small business, really any business in Oklahoma, and they say the No. 1 issue is workers' comp,” Bingman told us recently. He supports replacing our current system with an administrative system.
We hope Bingman has plenty of company. Oklahoma's court-based system sees too many cases being litigated, which drives up costs for employers and often delays the time before injured workers return to their jobs. The Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services found that Oklahoma's workers' comp rates were sixth-highest in the nation. Index rates in every state bordering Oklahoma are at least 41 percent lower.
The disaster that is our current system is illustrated in the case of state Rep. Mike Christian, R-Oklahoma City. After waiting more than a year to even file a claim, he was awarded more than $51,000 for a car accident that took place on his way to the Capitol. Workers' comp doesn't apply to average citizens driving to work. Somehow it applied for Christian's accident.
Mary Fallin for years led the charge for workers' comp reform as lieutenant governor. Now, as governor, she's far more subdued. Her husband, an attorney, makes his living at the court. Nevertheless, Fallin needs to support any meaningful reform legislation that makes it to her desk.
In the area of protecting recent education reforms, Fallin should play a forceful role. Efforts to roll back or weaken those changes are never-ending; the work of protecting them should be too. The same can be said of corrections. A justice reinvestment bill approved in 2012 has a chance to reduce crowding in our prisons and save money for the Department of Corrections — but only if the reforms are carried out by the various agencies involved. Being smart on crime isn't the same as being soft on crime. Oklahoma needs smarter corrections policy.
As the session dawns, we renew our call for caution where the state income tax is concerned. Last year saw efforts to slash the 5.25 percent top rate by half or even to eliminate the tax. Those plans failed. The present maximum rate needs to be reduced, but better to do it slowly and responsibly.
And speaking of being responsible, using bond issues to pay for some of the state's infrastructure needs (state Capitol complex, state medical examiner's office, for example) is something lawmakers must consider. Rejecting the idea on strictly ideological grounds is the height of irresponsibility. Fallin, Bingman and House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, need to demonstrate solid leadership in this area.
We'd be remiss if we didn't mention our persistent plea for lawmakers to avoid partisan sideshows and trivial pursuits, even if such pleas tend to fall on deaf ears. Unlike most recent sessions, the 2013 Legislature has growth revenue to work with. Lawmakers should focus on what will help produce more growth revenue, starting with a workers' comp system makeover, sensible income tax restructuring, infrastructure repair and finding ways to make state government smarter, more efficient and more focused on core functions.